Every summer I serve as one of the judges for a writing competition sponsored by a local civic organization. This year I have read 86 entries and am given a rubric to apply as I evaluate the submissions. Each year, as I read the stack, I come across stories that are filled with gratuitous violence and sex, stories that seem corny, trite, and contrived, some stories that can barely hold my interest. Then, as if by magic, the ten or so stories that speak to a deeper and more complex humanity rise to the surface. Without the application of any rubric, these stories rise because they are compelling and stirring and mysterious, the voices in these stories original and bright. As a reader I am pulled in and am embraced by the world the story has created. I am driven to learn more about the characters and the outcomes of the situations they are in. I become connected to their lives and their motives. I want to see how all the pieces intersect and are finally put together.
As a writer myself, I often contemplate what it is exactly that makes a piece of writing compelling. I also teach writing to 8th graders and this is a topic of conversation we have quite often. Of course, some answers may speak to a strong narrative structure with genuine tension and conflict and the fact that characters feel authentic and change and develop. And there’s point of view. And voice. And language…
Still, the question isn’t answered. What is it that makes these ten pieces float up from the mass of the rest? In these ten stories I felt myself interacting with the story; I felt myself asking questions about the characters’ situations. I found myself puzzling over their dilemmas and trying to solve them. I found myself drawn in by the mystery and complexity of their journeys. There was a real relationship between me and these stories. I forgot that I was reading. And, like in real relationships, there were unanswerable parts, uncertainties, unresolved issues that the writer trusted me to puzzle out. There were also a couple of stories that were creatively structured in a way that pushed me to see how that structure and content would mesh and make each stronger. (One story was based on tweets. Another started out clear and articulate and ended in code and fragments.)
“Compel” comes from the latin “compellere” which means to drive together, to drive to one place (cattle). The most powerful art takes the many seemingly disparate life threads and creates a whole stronger than any of the separate parts. As a reader feels this, the writing becomes more and more compelling. One is driven to gather any unresolved pieces and make sense of them. This urgency to “drive together” is fueled by the relationship of the reader and the writer; that stories are “compelling” when reader and writer are interacting, both working to make sense of shared complexities and confusions. This dance is a very tangible seduction.
All relationships, even those between reader and writer, take a lot of work, but only the promise of the most meaningful relationships are worth the effort.
(updated, revised, and edited from a previous post in July 2010)